Get Your Own Kleenex

It was the mid 90’s when I joined my first mastermind group. There were eight of us, all in different professions, who were in their first leadership roles. We grew to be a tight knit group as we mutually shared challenges in our jobs and searched for ideas on how to take our leadership to the next level. Our facilitator was a seasoned business leader who had a unique blend of business savvy and interpersonal skills.

At the time, I was working for an abrasive boss. Despite how hard I tried to meet his expectations, he had subtle, covert ways to knock me back down. I wanted to get two things out of the mastermind group. One, to improve my leadership skills with my employees. And two, learn how to respectfully interact with my boss to set boundaries on how I was treated – without losing my job.

During one of our early meetings, I shared with the group a recent interchange with my boss. Mid-story, I became emotional. Gratefully it wasn’t an ugly cry, but I paused to fight back tears over my boss’s degrading comments. Our mastermind leader then said something life-changing. These words helped me develop my emotional backbone to navigate difficult relationships.

You are a capable adult. As such, I’m here to help you reach your full potential. Tears are okay here. I won’t do for you what you can do for yourself, including get your own Kleenex. 

Initially I was stunned. I wasn’t sure if she meant I was being weak for showing emotion. I also thought “I’m not asking for anyone to pass me Kleenex, what’s this about?” Then we talked about a leadership lesson that taught me the difference between being caring and a caretaker; between inner resilience and dependency.

Here’s the difference:

Being caring is being present, fully listening without giving advice. Rather than tell people what to do, stay quiet. It may include asking questions (without an imbedded answer). Allow others the space to figure out challenges by tapping into their own strengths and capabilities. Walk alongside someone who’s struggling and don’t do things they’re capable of doing for themselves (like give them Kleenex).

Being a caretaker is telling people what to do and possibly enabling by doing things for them. It’s a subtle way of being in a “one-up” position. Without saying it, actions convey that a person is not capable to face a particular challenge. Sometimes caretakers “pass the Kleenex” because they’re uncomfortable and it’s a way of staying in control. Most of these behaviors are unconscious and commonly thought to show compassion with the intent to be helpful.

From the Get your own Kleenex principle, I learned resilience that strengthened me to outlast an abrasive boss. When I finally left that position, I wasn’t running away because of my boss. Instead, I left because I learned how to see a person who was hurting inside and deeply insecure. The only way he knew to feel good about himself was to cut others down. I learned to see past his behavior and not take his comments personally. I developed an emotional backbone because my mentor didn’t act as a caretaker. Instead, she cared.

Healthy leaders like my mentor will ask you to stretch in areas that aren’t comfortable, yet help employees reach their full potential. The “Get your own Kleenex” principle is about empowering your employees to develop their capabilities. It’s letting your employees know it’s okay to share struggles, even show emotion, with the message, you’ve got what it takes to work through this challenge.

If you’d like to learn more about how to help your employees develop their capabilities and more “Get your Own Kleenex” Principles, just give us a call or shoot us an email.

Workplace Conflict Expert Bonnie Artman Fox, MS, LMFT, works with executive leaders and team managers who want to stop divisive behaviors, resolve conflict, and build the team trust needed to create a healthy work culture.  Contact Bonnie to help your employees get along and bring teams together.

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